Ask anyone who’s played a round of trivia with me, they’ll tell you. I frequently figure out the correct answer by making logical deductions from a known fact. Then, when I give my reasons for my answer, I’m told my “known” fact was incorrect. Still, I came up with the right answer. For the wrong reason.
Oh it’s a thing, all right. It exists. And for proof you have to look no farther than Batgirl Annual v 4 # 2.
In the story, Batgirl and Poison Ivy were investigating a large, fenced-in medical research compound in Kane County somewhere on the mainland just outside of Gotham City. Why they were there isn’t really important to this column. So I’m not going to bother explaining. That way I don’t have to write another spoiler warning.
What does matter to this column is that Batgirl and Poison Ivy cut through the chain link fence and forcibly trespassed in the compound. And what is even more important to this column is that the compound’s security guards came running out brandishing their weapons and warned, “You’re trespassing on private land. We have the legal right to use lethal force.”
Which is wrong. But it’s also right; just for the wrong reason. Oh, let’s see if I can make it easier.
Oops, sorry. Wrong simplification. Although maybe I should stick with it. I’m trying to explain self-defense law. And that’s a long, long way to run. See, self-defense has more twists, turns, and convolutions than a mountain road, a plate of spaghetti, and your small intestine. Combined.
When someone attacks you, you have the right to defend yourself and you have the right to use the same amount of force as is being used against you. So, if you’re being attacked with lethal force, you can use lethal force to defend yourself. You can even use a force that’s more potentially lethal than the lethal force being used against you. That’s why, in the words of Sean Connery, you can bring a gun to a knife fight. As long as you have a reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm, you can use deadly force.
But, and self-defense law has more buts in it than all the port-a-potties at a rock concert, there are exceptions. Biggest? You can’t claim self-defense, if you violated your duty to retreat.
The duty to retreat is not the battle strategy of the Cowardly Lion. Rather, it’s a legal principle that says, before you can claim self-defense, you must be able to show that you tried to avoid the confrontation by retreating. If, for example, you’re in a bar and a drunk tries to pick a fight with you. If you can walk away from the fight without endangering yourself, you must do so. You can’t just stay there, let the fight happen, then claim self-defense. You must first try to retreat from the situation. And you’re not absolved of the duty to retreat because someone called you chicken, so Marty McFly is SOL.
But, and like I said navigating self-defense is like playing a round of but-but golf, there is an exception to the duty to retreat. The Castle doctrine.
The castle doctrine is not: Castle will first come up with some screwball conspiracy theory solution to the murder before he and Beckett figure out who the real murderer is. Rather it says that when you are in your own home, and a man’s home is his castle, there is no duty to retreat. You can use deadly force against trespassers at your home without retreating.
Some jurisdictions even extend the castle doctrine to other places such as one’s car or place of business. So if you’re in your car or place of business, you don’t have to retreat before using self-defense. Other jurisdictions have taken the castle doctrine even farther by passing a stand-your-ground law. Stand-your-ground laws extend the castle doctrine to anywhere. Under stand-your-ground laws, if you are in a place where you have a legal right to be, there is no duty to retreat and you may use deadly force if you believe you face a real and imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death, no matter where you are.
But – remember self-defense law has more buts than the ashtrays outside a Nicotine Anonymous meeting – not even the castle doctrine gives you full and free range to open fire on all trespassers. The castle doctrine – and even stand-your-ground laws – requires that in order to use deadly force, the actor have a reasonable belief that the trespasser intends to inflict serious bodily harm or death on someone, and the actor must not have provoked the intrusion.
So if you’re the neighborhood curmudgeon and you have a “No Solicitors” sign prominently posted on your house, you still can’t use the Castle doctrine to justify shooting the local Girl Scouts. No matter how much you hate Thin Mints.
Now having set the parameters, could the security guards in Kane County assert the castle doctrine against Batgirl and Poison Ivy to justify the use lethal force against the trespassers? The short answer is no.
And as much as I’d like to leave it at the short answer, you know I can’t. Gotham City is in New Jersey. New Jersey does have a castle doctrine on its books – it’s here. But New Jersey’s castle doctrine only applies to one’s house. New Jersey did not extend its castle doctrine to a car or an occupied place of business. The security guards at the medical complex could not rely on the castle doctrine and deadly force did not flow automatically from the fact that Batgirl and Poison Ivy were trespassing on private property.
So the security guards were wrong. But – and I think we’re up to at least But-terfield 10 by now – they were still right. If the security guards honestly believed they faced an immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death, they could use deadly force, just so long as they didn’t violate their duty to retreat.
Did the security guards violate a duty to retreat? No. They were, after all, security guards. They were hired to repel forcible trespasses. The guards wouldn’t be able to do their jobs very well, if every time there was a trespasser, they had to back away to comply with a duty to retreat.
The duty to retreat is suspended for armed security guards. But they still don’t have the right to use deadly force against any trespasser; like some really ambitious Girl Scouts who were trying sell cookies at a remote medical research complex. But they could use deadly force against trespassers whom they feared were about to inflict serious physical harm or death.
These security guards didn’t have Girl Scouts. They had Batgirl, a masked vigilante whose usual modus operandi is to resort to physical force. Hell, during the fight scene Batgirl’s internal dialogue caption even said she was “pretty good at force.” They also had Poison Ivy, a known super villain who was even quicker to use serious physical force, and sometimes even deadly force. I don’t think the security guards would have had much of a problem proving they had a reasonable fear of serious physical harm or death.
So, the guards were right, they did have the legal right to use deadly force against Batgirl and Poison. But for the wrong reason. They couldn’t claim the castle doctrine, but they could invoke standard self-defense.
Gee, armed security guards in Gotham City actually did something right. It’s almost enough to make you start believing that armed, uniformed authority figures in Gotham City are actually good at their jobs.
But only almost. Let’s not get carried away or anything